Disasters in Hills: natural or man-made?

India is a country vulnerable to disasters. The hilly areas are most prone to disasters and need immaculate planning for mitigation and preventive measures.The rugged topography of the Himalayan mountainous ranges and the hilly belt of the northeastern region are highly susceptible to landslides. The topography of these regions amplifies the danger to human life and loss to public property as executing rescue and relief effortsbecome challenging.

Construction of 50,000 kms of road network in Himalayas, mining and quarrying are causing heavy damage to the natural slopes and to the environment.The construction of road networks on a large scale is destabilising the mountains. The impacts of natural disasters do not seem natural, as uncontrolled and unplanned human activities have made the situation severe.

Uttarakhand flooding is the incident that explains why development in hilly regions needs to be planned well. The disaster caused enormous damage, destruction and loss of life. It also raised questions regarding our preparedness for handling such disasters. What is the government doing to mitigate them? Can our buildings, roads and bridges bear the fury of disasters? The construction of hydroelectric dams on a large scale is disturbing the ecology of all areas. The Uttarakhand power department and the central electricity authority have established hydro power stations in the upper reaches of river Ganga.

Uncontrolled constructions along the riverbeds, hillsides and the development of multi-storied hotels in sensitive zones to cater to the ever-expanding needs of tourism have been identified as the main causes of these floods. To prevent such occurrences in the future the government needs to focus on creating a robust pilgrim and tourist management system along with proper allocation of funds and regulations for tourism infrastructure.

If we talk about the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, it comes under the most sensitive earthquake prone areas of the country. After the Bhuj earthquake in 2001, which devastated the whole region of Kutch, the government of Himachal Pradesh had taken special steps and started a new authority – Town and Country Planning to regulate the construction activities in the Kangra region. Construction activities are rampant in Kangra, Palampur and Dharmshala and these have become huge concrete jungles. Haphazard and unplanned buildings and residential construction is taking place unchecked. The policy of Town and Country Planning is not being implemented.

Kangra earthquake of April 4, 1905 is considered as one of the four great Himalayan earthquakes ever to have occurred in the past 200 years. It is estimated that more than 20,000 of its 375,000 population were killed and that one lakh buildings were destroyed. If an earthquake of such intensity were to strike today, one can imagine the amount of destruction it can cause.

The entire Dhauladhar range in Himachal Pradesh comes under zone five; the experts of seismology have suggested earthquake proof construction for this region. However, the state government, Town, and Country Planning department have failed to ensure it.

In a telephonic interview with Urban Update, Tikender Singh Panwar, Deputy Mayor of Shimla,explained about the state of disaster management initiatives in the hills and said urgent steps need to be taken for ensuring safety of a city like Shimla

Tikender Singh Panwar, Deputy Mayor Shimla

The constructions in the hills are at a fast pace which is completely unplanned. What is the basis of these constructions?

These buildings are approved by the municipal corporations or by the Town and Country Planning department. Somewhere there would be some discrepancies, for example deviation would be there, set backs are not there. Secondly, are they disaster resistant or disaster resilient?  I can say they are not. Who is going to decide whether a building is disaster resilient or disaster vulnerable? There is no agency that has done such work in Shimla.

For that, we have to understand the overall development strategy that the Himachal Government, the central government, and the World Bank are following. Actually, the World Bank is pumping in lots of money- almost 10,000 crores in Himachal Pradesh under State Road Project. The intention of this project is to widen the roads, convert two lanes to four lanes; but no one realizes that this increases the vulnerability for the simple reason that to widen the roads you have to cut the mountain and at the same time, you have to cut down the trees. Now under the central government, the small village roads have also been converted in to national highways, which means roads will be widened further.

Actually, the strategy for transport and for mobility must be not widening of the roads but enhancing the mobility. It could be train; or the best connectivity to the mountains is ropeways. With this development strategy,people are being induced to buy more cars, because if you have more roads people will buy more cars. In fact, strategy has to be different; and this is also not in tune with our climate change strategy. We have to reduce the use of cars in mountains and we have to provide the alternatives to them. The present development strategy is extremely disastrous.

Are the buildings in Shimla approved by the Town and Country Planning Authority? Are they disaster resistant?

I would say it is very difficult to term a building that has been approved by the Town and Country Planning department as safe whereas a building that has not been approved to term it unsafe. Because there is no integrated development plan and there is no master plan. It is only through the interim development plan that the construction is taking place.

If disaster like Uttarakhand ever happens in Shimla, are we prepared for that? What are the plans for mitigation?

No, we are not ready for that. See, we have done what is called Hazard Risk Vulnerability Assessment in Shimla and the outcome of that assessment and understanding is that if an earthquake strikes during the day then some 15000 people are going to die in a day but if it strikes during night, then over 22000 people will die.

There is a plan to mitigate but then it is extremely difficult. It requires a lot of money. There is a City Disaster Management Plan, District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) and the State Disaster Management Plan and Action but nothing to mitigate.These plans are never made by engaging the people; these plans are made in some AC drawing rooms.

What steps should government take?

See, what I would like to focus upon is that we require professional agencies from the government that should draw up a master plan and that should decide which building is vulnerable and which is not. And then, overall strategy with some time frame has to be developed to make building resilient, strengthen it and also to have an overall development strategy.

For example, a big disaster is going to happen due to the roads and these hydro power projects. The day we have an earthquake and one of these dams gets destroyed then imagine what will happen. Imagine all the rivers in fact have become dumping ground for muck. Entire muck that has come out of the templehas actually been dumped along the river line.

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